Striving for greatness

The life and times of a Gentoo developer and leader

Archive for February 2009

links for 2009-02-27

  • Technical Debt is a wonderful metaphor developed by Ward Cunningham to help us think about this problem. In this metaphor, doing things the quick and dirty way sets us up with a technical debt, which is similar to a financial debt. Like a financial debt, the technical debt incurs interest payments, which come in the form of the extra effort that we have to do in future development because of the quick and dirty design choice. We can choose to continue paying the interest, or we can pay down the principal by refactoring the quick and dirty design into the better design. Although it costs to pay down the principal, we gain by reduced interest payments in the future.

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 27, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Posted in Blog

links for 2009-02-26

  • So the useful question is not “how many hours do you work?” but “how much energy do you put into your work?” Other useful questions that come with it are:

    * How much of your daily energy do you spend increasing your total energy? Do you feel you spend enough? Do you feel you spend it on the right things?
    * How much of your daily energy do you waste each day? How do you define waste? Is all that waste really unproductive or does it have some beneficial side-effects? Are those side-effects sufficient to justify spending that energy?
    * Do you spend energy on things which actively hurt you?
    * Has your daily energy increased or decreased in the last 6 months? year? 5 years?

    Any of these questions is more worthwhile than “How many hours do you work each day?”

    (tags: productivity)
  • There's a sort of Gresham's Law of trolls: trolls are willing to use a forum with a lot of thoughtful people in it, but thoughtful people aren't willing to use a forum with a lot of trolls in it. Which means that once trolling takes hold, it tends to become the dominant culture. That had already happened to Slashdot and Digg by the time I paid attention to comment threads there, but I watched it happen to Reddit.

    News.YC is, among other things, an experiment to see if this fate can be avoided. The sites's guidelines explicitly ask people not to say things they wouldn't say face to face. If someone starts being rude, other users will step in and tell them to stop. And when people seem to be deliberately trolling, we ban them ruthlessly.

    (tags: community)

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 26, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Posted in Blog

Xorg-server 1.6 preview in Gentoo’s x11 overlay

To compete with Remi’s post about getting xorg-server 1.5.3 stable in Gentoo, here’s one about getting xorg-server 1.6, which was released today, into testing in the main tree. We’ve been maintaining the 1.6 release candidates in the x11 overlay for a while now. Tonight I added the final release to the overlay. (Update for Google users) What’s new in 1.6, you ask?

What’s left before it can move to the main tree? Here’s what I can think of, offhand:

  • The new XRandR stuff needs to get released upstream (randrproto, libXrandr, xrandr). Right now we’ve got the xrandr userland tool depending on live git of libXrandr, which won’t work for the main tree. (Update: randrproto and libXrandr 1.3 are out, just waiting on the userland tool xrandr)
  • We need to sort out the issue with XCB’s Xlib library renaming forcing recompiles of practically everything. This is becoming more and more of a blocker because now libXext 7.0.5 requires a new libX11. I think giving ourselves a hard blocker on 1.6 from this will help us get it fixed. See bug #248743 to track progress on this. (Update: solution in x11 overlay for testing)
  • The server now has a fix to keep looking for HAL if it’s not running when started. Should we change /etc/init.d/xdm to compensate for this change by no longer depending on hald, thus allowing gdm/kdm/etc to start earlier? This will give us one of the steps taken by the fastboot work seen lately in Moblin and elsewhere.
  • I think Remi’s going to add xf86-video-intel 2.6.2. (Update: done)
  • Our xinit is crazy stale, mainly because we patch it like crazy and I don’t like porting those. I’d like to get it updated to a current release for 1.6. In the longer term, we need to merge distro-neutral parts of our work upstream, but that’s not a 1.6 blocker.

To sum up, you can try xorg-server 1.6 now by adding the x11 overlay with layman, or you can wait for the above issues to get solved, and it will show up soon in testing in your main tree.

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 26, 2009 at 12:09 am

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , ,

Summer of Code preview

I wrote an LWN article called “Google’s Summer of Code: Past and Future.” In it, you’ll learn:

  • Why your project should apply to the program
  • How big the program is likely to be this year
  • A major change for the 2009 session, and
  • A pointer to a valuable resource for mentors.

LWN is my favorite source for the best Linux and open-source news. They write original articles and also spend a lot of time searching all over the Internet for all the latest news so that all I have to do is read it. The reader community is fantastic, too. Subscribe to LWN today!

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 24, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Blog

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links for 2009-02-20

  • Invariably, groups that had the bad apple would perform worse. And this despite the fact that were people in some groups that were very talented, very smart, very likeable. Felps found that the bad apple’s behavior had a profound effect — groups with bad apples performed 30 to 40 percent worse than other groups. On teams with the bad apple, people would argue and fight, they didn’t share relevant information, they communicated less.

    Even worse, other team members began to take on the bad apple’s characteristics. When the bad apple was a jerk, other team members would begin acting like a jerk. When he was a slacker, they began to slack, too. And they wouldn’t act this way just in response to the bad apple. They’d act this way to each other, in sort of a spillover effect.

    (tags: community)

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 20, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , ,

links for 2009-02-19

  • Three factors must be present for meaningful organizational change to take place. These factors are:

    D = Dissatisfaction with the status quo;
    V = Vision of what is possible;
    F = First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision.
    R = If any of these factors are missing or weak, then you’re going to get resistance.

    (tags: leadership)
  • It is important for leaders of organizations going through change to realize the ‘lag time’ between where they are in the process and where others in the organizations are in the process.

    The higher a leader sits in an organization the more quickly he or she tends to move through the change process. Because they can see the intended destination before others even know the race has begun, senior managers can forget that others will take longer to make the transition: letting go of old ways, moving through the neutral zone, and, finally, making a new beginning.

    (tags: leadership)

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 19, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , ,

Planning for Gentoo in the 2009 Summer of Code

Our application is due for the Summer of Code in less than a month (see FAQ). The applications will include a few parts that I think are key and that are likely to change from last year’s application:

  • Project ideas
  • Previous involvement: successes, challenges
  • Application template specific to Gentoo
  • What we will do to ensure students stick around after the summer

We definitely need a nice big set of project ideas. The rest of them will probably be shorter answers. How do you think we should answer these questions?

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 19, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , ,

links for 2009-02-17

  • Lots of good stuff, including this gem:

    Firing people isn’t just about saving money, or petty things like that. It’s the difference between a great organization and a failure. Ineffective people drag everyone else down to their level. They make it so that you can’t take pride in what you’re doing, so that you dread going into work in the morning, so that you can’t rely on the other pieces of the project getting done. And assholes, no matter how talented they may be, are even worse. Conversely, there are few things more fun than working hard with a really nice, talented group of people.

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 17, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , ,

You improve your code. What about yourself?

I laid out part of a framework for improving Gentoo in my last post. As many of you kindly noted, I explained what I wanted to do but did a poor job of convincing you why it needs to happen. That’s what I’m going to begin doing in this post.

As this post’s title says, when you develop code, you generally want it to be the best code possible. You also want to improve it over time if it’s not yet up to the highest standards. This holds doubly true when you’re doing this for free in an open-source project. First, there’s no time pressure to pound out minimally working code, so you can take the time to make it beautiful. Second, everyone else can look at your work, so you can’t hide ugly code in a dusty corner somewhere as you might be able to in proprietary software.

These same concepts hold true for you, not just your code. When you’re contributing to an open-source project, everyone sees what you do and how you do it. Strive to make yourself beautiful in the context of open-source development. What’s that mean? Always challenge yourself, grow as a person, and learn new skills. Just as beautiful code perfectly suits its purpose, beautiful developers perfectly suit their purpose. Their skills and actions exemplify how open-source developers should act.

If you’re optimizing code, you know that you can’t optimize what you can’t measure. That’s why profilers and other methods of instrumentation exist. This concept has a parallel in your personal development. Your instrumentation is goals, and what you’re measuring is your performance against your own goals. The purpose of this, as with code, is to optimize performance for your relevant metrics. How do you know whether you’ve improved unless you’re profiling yourself? What you’re left with if you don’t set goals and track progress against them is that frustrating comment people always say, “It just feels faster.”

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 15, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Steps toward improving Gentoo

Having the right people in the right places pursuing the right goals is key to Gentoo’s success. Keeping in mind the Pareto principle (20% of the effort produces 80% of the results), I’ve come up with some ideas. The core of these ideas is creating a development community composed only of top-notch contributors and putting the entire Gentoo project into a cycle of continuous improvement, from the bottom up.

Each team and project should have goals. A good goal is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound). That means “Maintain foo packages” is a poor goal, because you cannot answer it in a quantitative way and it has no time limit. One example of a good goal is “6 months from now, 90% of new bugs will be closed within 2 weeks of their report.” Another example is “3 months from now, 100% of our packages will be bumped within 1 week of release, or a bug will exist describing why not.” Progress toward goals should be checked once a month by the team lead and reported to the project lead (or to the council, if no project lead exists).

Each team member should have goals. The performance of that contributor in the context of that team should be measured. People who aren’t up to the team’s high standards (measured by failure to meet goals) should receive coaching from the team lead. There should be a concrete plan for improvement, committed to by both sides, for how these people will reach the high standards they aren’t hitting yet. After a plan exists, failure to improve within 3 months will result in their departure from the team. At the team lead’s judgment, people may be removed without going through coaching if they are considered a lost cause. Progress toward goals should be checked once a month by the team lead.

To minimize the chance that an underperforming developer was simply not in the right place, each developer gets 3 chances to find the right place in Gentoo. Upon removal from the first 2 teams, the team lead will report what happened to the project lead (or to the council, if no project lead exists) and to developer relations. On the 3rd strike, you’re out.

Council members and project leads should take responsibility for mentoring the next generation of leaders. Just as team leads are helping to improve individual developers, so the next tier of leadership should be developing team leads into strong project leads and council members. Nobody sticks around forever, and we need to be ready for when even our most critical developers move on. It’s far better to have too many strong potential leaders than to have a vacuum that’s filled by a poor leader.

Finally, all of our goals should flow downward in a logical manner from the Gentoo mission & vision through projects to teams and individual developers. Gentoo’s perennial problem is a lack of focus. Any work that is inconsistent with our goals should be stopped, and we should rededicate our time to things that tie in with where we want to be next year and 5 years from now. To ensure this, goals at each level should be reviewed by whoever’s at the next level up to make sure things make sense at a global level all the way down, like a waterfall.

Now is a good time to re-read the Gentoo philosophy. I find it extremely powerful and compelling, and I hope you feel the same. We should live this philosophy every day in our work with Gentoo, and every aspect of our work should grow from it:

Every user has work they need to do. The goal of Gentoo is to design tools and systems that allow a user to do that work as pleasantly and efficiently as possible, as they see fit. Our tools should be a joy to use, and should help the user to appreciate the richness of the Linux and free software community, and the flexibility of free software. This is only possible when the tool is designed to reflect and transmit the will of the user, and leave the possibilities open as to the final form of the raw materials (the source code.) If the tool forces the user to do things a particular way, then the tool is working against, rather than for, the user. We have all experienced situations where tools seem to be imposing their respective wills on us. This is backwards, and contrary to the Gentoo philosophy.

Put another way, the Gentoo philosophy is to create better tools. When a tool is doing its job perfectly, you might not even be very aware of its presence, because it does not interfere and make its presence known, nor does it force you to interact with it when you don’t want it to. The tool serves the user rather than the user serving the tool.

The goal of Gentoo is to strive to create near-ideal tools. Tools that can accommodate the needs of many different users all with divergent goals. Don’t you love it when you find a tool that does exactly what you want to do? Doesn’t it feel great? Our mission is to give that sensation to as many people as possible.

I’ve run out of time for tonight. Most of what I’ve written is about forward progress rather than improving individual developers, so I’ll try to write more about that another time. I think we need know how we’re doing if we ever want to improve, so this investment into goals and thinking about performance is worthwhile. What do you think?

Written by Donnie Berkholz

February 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm

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